A sea loch on the west coast of Scotland prized for its wildlife has been polluted by countless thousands of scraps of plastic waste from the manufacture of salmon farm cages on the shore.
Loch Creran, north of Oban – under legal protection for its rare flame shell beds – has been contaminated by innumerable plastic strips, shavings and offcuts which wash ashore and litter local beaches.
The waste comes from grinding, cutting and drilling large plastic tubes used to make floating circular pens for farming salmon. The work has been carried out for years on a public beach on Loch Creran, discarding pieces of plastic on the ground.
Outraged local residents and campaigners have demanded an end to the pollution and accused regulators of turning “a blind eye”. They have made a video to illustrate the problem.
The Scottish Government is investigating whether a licence was required for the shoreline manufacturing work. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), waste handling practices were “unacceptable”.
The marine manufacturing company now responsible, Gael Force Fusion, accepted that there had been “shortcomings” in its environmental care. Measures were now in place to meet “the high standards expected of us”, it said.
Loch Creran was designated a marine protected area by the Scottish Government in 2014 to conserve endangered flame shells, named after their waving red and orange tentacles. Along with horse mussel beds and reefs, they are home to myriad underwater plants and animals, including starfish, sponges and brittlestars.
But now the seaweed, shingle and sand around the loch are laced with spirals of black plastic. Thousands have been removed by beach clean-ups, but more come ashore with every tide.
This has been confirmed by Gael Force staff quoted by Sepa in an October 2018 environmental event report released under freedom of information law. “There is also a legacy issue with plastic in the water and buried in the sand, so that after wind and storms a lot of plastic is washed up sometimes,” company staff were reported to have said.
According to residents, salmon cages have been constructed on Teithil Beach near the village of Barcaldine for the last decade. Their video shows plastic swarf from the work left on the beach, hidden in the seaweed and lapping the shore.
“I find it staggering that they have been using a public beach as if it were part of their factory for 10 years,” said Andrew Holder, who made the video with Maggie Brotherston.
“I am incensed by the fact that they have no licence to work on that beach. This is collateral damage from the salmon farming business that goes almost unnoticed.”
Holder and Brotherston, who are setting up a Friends of Loch Creran support group, have repeatedly found and photographed the distinctive plastic waste washing up on neighbouring beaches, most recently on 3 October. “Gael Force Fusion has polluted a protected Scottish loch with plastic shavings while Sepa and the government’s Marine Scotland turned a blind eye,” they said.
The company, which has an indoor workshop in Barcaldine, is currently consulting on plans to build a new manufacturing facility nearby on the site of an old sea life centre. This would ensure that in future all plastic waste would be contained and recycled, the company said.
But Holder is critical. “We are worried that they will leave their mess behind and move on,” he told The Ferret, arguing that a new factory could “devastate” a tranquil woodland.
He called for an immediate halt to manufacturing on Teithil Beach “What we would hope is that Gael Force Fusion admit their liability and do regular beach cleans,” he added.
Another Argyll resident and anti-fish-farming campaigner, Ewan Kennedy, suggested that the caged salmon industry seemed to have special immunity. “Who else would get away with squatting on the foreshore for ten years, denying the public their rights, using it for a filthy industrial process?” he asked.
“For decades to come each spell of bad weather will bring more fragments of toxic black plastic to the surface, a poisonous legacy that will remain when the fish farms are long gone.”
Friends of the Earth Scotland described the plastic pollution as an eyesore. “It is also contaminating the loch and potentially harming marine life and the local environment,” said the environmental group’s plastics campaigner, Sarah Moyes.
“If Gael Force is going to continue to use Teithil Beach to manufacture fish farm cages then it must take full responsibility for the plastic pollution it has caused and make sure no further plastic waste is able to enter the loch.”
Marine Scotland pointed out that the marine activities that required licences were set out in section 21 of the 2010 Marine (Scotland) Act. Its licensing team was “in discussions with Gael Force to fully understand their operations to see if they should be considered under this section,” the Scottish Government agency said.
A spokesperson added: “Marine Scotland licensing operations team has written to Gael Force to provide advice on marine licensing and is in ongoing discussions with the company regarding the assembly of fish farm cages at this site.”
Sepa confirmed that it had responded to complaints from members of the public about plastic on the shores of Loch Creran. Inspectors visited the site on 10 October 2018.
“Officers substantiated unacceptable waste practices at the site, provided clear instructions regarding duty of care requirements and have confirmed steps being taken by the business to prevent further releases of plastic into the environment,” said a Sepa spokesperson.
“Sepa will conduct follow-up inspections at the site and if this pollution continues will consider further action in line with our enforcement policy.”
Gael Force Fusion is part of the Gale Force Group of marine equipment suppliers headquartered in Inverness. It bought the Loch Creran site from another company, Fusion Marine, in April 2018 and employs 32 people in the Argyll region.
The company said it re-assessed its waste procedures on the beach in 2018 following local community concerns. “We listened to those concerns and fully acknowledge that the high standard of care for our environment we expect from ourselves was not being met in all instances,” said Gael Force marketing manager, Marc Wilson.
“We are very grateful to those members of the local community who highlighted issues and for bringing those shortcomings to our attention. The feedback we received enabled us to enhance our procedures in order to meet the high standard we, and indeed the local community, expect.”
He added: “We engaged in a transparent dialogue with Sepa and put a framework of robust measures into place that would ensure we raised our standards significantly and meet our responsibility to appropriately capture any residual process waste.”
Grinding, cutting and drilling would be done indoors away from the foreshore “wherever possible”, Wilson promised. Other control measures included “protective sheets” to capture waste, “twice daily sweeps of the work area”, “regular litter picks” and “comprehensive training on waste reduction procedures”.
The company had recently had “constructive engagements” with concerned members of the local community. “We have the fullest confidence that the measures we are working to this year are ensuring that we are meeting the high standards expected of us,” Wilson told The Ferret.
He argued that company plans for a new factory at Barcaldine would enable manufacturing and production to be moved aware from the shores of Loch Creran. “The proposed location would facilitate the continued containment, capture, and recycling of all plastic waste from the manufacturing process,” he said.
“We are acutely aware of the huge responsibility we hold as a business for the environment we work in and that the part we play in reducing waste output is incredibly important. This is very important to us and we acknowledge that there were opportunities for improvement in past processes – opportunities which we have taken.”
Asked whether Gael Force should pay to clean up the plastic pollution, Wilson added: “We are pro-actively engaging with members of the community to help inform us on our approach to future beach cleans in the area.”
Environmental event report released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency
Video thanks to Andrew Holder and photos all thanks to Maggie Brotherston.